State lotteries leave a trail of broken promises

State lotteries are a ruse. If that’s a surprise to you, it’s because you haven’t been paying attention.

States almost always enter the lottery business by promising a lot of easy money for worthy things, such as public education. But once the politicians get hold of all that easy money, they start moving funds around, and education still ends up hurting.

Meanwhile, the poor and, ironically, uneducated, end up losing the most because they play the lottery the most. To make up for shortfalls, states end up pushing people to gamble more and harder. They even produce addicting machines because, when poor people fail them, problem gamblers are a good source for making up the difference.

The story has been told again and again by reputable media sources ranging from local newspapers to the New York Times. But few of them have brought it home quite like John Oliver on his entertaining HBO show “Last Week Tonight.” Watch the video below (warning – the video contains some swear words that are bleeped out, but still recognizable).

I particularly like the quote about how your odds of winning the lottery are about the same as getting struck by lightning while being eaten by a shark.

To back up some of what Oliver said, a piece by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post in 2012 examined why “…in state after state, where lotteries send millions of dollars to public education, schools are still starved.” Her conclusions were much the same as Oliver’s. She found that “legislatures have used the lottery money to pay for the education budget and spent the money that would have been used had there been no lottery cash on other things.”

As far back as 2007, the New York Times reported that most lottery money goes to pay for supporting the games themselves, including prize money and commissions to vendors. States were increasing prize amounts to make their games more competitive, “further shrinking the percentage of each dollar going to education and other programs.”

Worst of all, the Times piece quoted an analyst with the Association of California School Administrators, who said all the lofty promises associated with lotteries “… makes it harder for us to convince people that they still need to support education. They think the lottery is taking care of education.”

Business Insider did a convincing piece two years ago showing how the poor and uneducated are the most avid purchasers of lottery tickets. More recently, Capital News Service in Maryland published a report showing how low-income people are the main source of that’s state’s lottery funding.

It’s not hard to find stories about how lotteries are failing to live up to promises. States still persist in trying to tell a different story, however, and people seem to be buying it.

As I’ve said before, people have a civic duty to fund education in a way that is direct and accountable, not tied to some irresponsible notion they will get something for nothing in the process. In addition, the rich have a duty to pay for education, as well. They should pay a higher share than the poor.

And, although it may sound old-fashioned, governments ought to reinforce the value of hard work, not the false promises of gambling.

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About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.

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